Marriage equality will extend a basic civil right and allow a broader swath of Americans to opt into the bundle of economic protections and cultural privileges associated with matrimony. But this year, which has seen such tremendous movement toward marriage equality, also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Surely progressives have not forgotten her key insight: that marriage is wholly inadequate to ensure public equality or personal fulfillment. If we are to move beyond mere jubilation at the message in the stars—MARRIAGE EQUALITY IS—and provide a deeper answer to the question of what difference it will make, advocates may have to shift their tactics fairly radically.
The successful, pragmatic strategy of gay activists has been to assert that same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. Their argument is that there is no need to defend marriage against loving same-sex couples, because these couples don’t want to alter it; they just want to participate in it. But as we race to a victorious finish, it is time to begin forcefully articulating that, in fact, maybe we do want to change marriage—because while marriage should be a choice, it should not be an imperative. For decades, LGBTQ communities have generated new forms of family built on foundations of shared commitments, collective responsibilities, nonconjugal love and parental devotion not predicated on shared genetics. Shut out of social-normative options for making families, they queered the very idea of family. It would be tragic to allow marriage equality to destroy or marginalize the pioneering work of queer families who have taught us that family is more complicated and more fulfilling than traditional models of marriage can ever capture.
It is astonishing to be alive in this moment when marriage equality is written in the stars, but I hope we will be like the child who asks what difference it really makes. Because I suspect the goal of achieving this right is less about the ceremonies, the flowers, the love or even the economic benefits. I suspect the real goal is to achieve a more inclusive recognition of the authentic and enduring ways that we connect ourselves to one another, without needing the words “husband,” “wife” or even “spouse.” The difference we want this movement to make is bigger than that.